3 Questions for Job Seekers with a PhD

Originally published at Conversations in Academia with the title, “Not just ‘a loser with a PhD’: Three questions to ask yourself upon leaving academia.”

The majority of doctoral degree holders in Canada are not working as full-time faculty members. The vast majority are employed elsewhere, and although statistics are scarce, we generally know that people with PhDs are having a harder time now than they did in past decades securing faculty positions. There are too many of us and not nearly enough growth in full-time jobs. What this means is that many of us must change careers. This can be very tough, but those who do so are in good company! Let me know if you want to explore coaching with me.

Now, questions to help you reflect and focus your career exploration or job search activities:

1. “What makes me unique within your discipline, department, or lab?”

Although there’s a tendency for graduate students to identify with their degrees — “I am a history PhD (or historian),” for example — the reality is that there are as many flavours of being a history PhD as there are people with that degree. You make different choices than those around you about where to spend your time and how to engage in the work you do. And don’t forget your hobbies or academic-adjacent extra-curricular activities. These so-called “distractions” may be crucial experiences that get you noticed and employed beyond the academy, or within it!

Example: I’m the go-to person in my lab for undergraduate students who have questions about how to do science. What does this say about me?

Example: I co-organized a graduate student conference in my department. What does this say about me?

Example: I took it upon myself to write a dozen different encyclopedia entries. What does this say about me?

2. “What are my priorities, values, character strengths, and skills?”

Don’t let the academy or your supervisor dictate the lifestyle and career you want for yourself. Your own priorities, values, and strengths matter most of all. Be honest with yourself about what’s important to you, and try to honour these things. Knowing what you value and where your strengths lie gives you useful information about yourself, and can help you make better decisions about where to expend your energies. Selfishness is called for here!

Example: My family is top of mind for me, and that includes living within driving distance of parents and inlaws. How can I honour this priority?

Example: Fairness and social justice are major personal values for me. How can I honour these values?

Example: I am a skilled researcher and analyst who loves learning. How can I honour these skills and strengths?

3. “What are job or career possibilities for someone like me?”

After years in graduate school, it’s no wonder many of us have limited knowledge of other sectors of the economy, and jobs other than professor. You can accept the challenge to expand your knowledge by reading about and especially speaking to professionals working in a wide range of jobs and careers. (Informational interviews are invaluable.) If you’re framing your curiosity as, “What can I do with a PhD in x?” consider changing it to, “What could I do?” Your PhD won’t be your top selling point to any employer; instead, hiring managers are looking to solve a problem. Your PhD experience will come in handy, but it may take a while for you to figure out what parts to emphasize.

Example: I’m good at bringing people together to work on a shared goal. What kind of role requires that sort of person?

Example: I’m highly skilled in a dozen different complex scientific techniques. Which employers could use my skills?

Example: I receive more positive feedback on my blog posts than on my published academic articles. What problem does public engagement solve for an employer?

Some resources:

Beyond the Professoriate, my online conference for PhDs

Resources for PhDs, a page on the From PhD to Life website

Transition Q & A series, featuring dozens of stories

PhDs at Work website

Chronicle Vitae networking and news website

Mitacs, Canadian non-profit that offers programs and training to graduate students and postdocs

Versatile PhD website and forum

Versatile PhD — Toronto Facebook group

#alt-academy website

Twitter hashtags of interest: #altac #postac #withaPhD #scicomm #altscience #PhDtoGov